Cumann na mBan, the ‘League of Women’, was formed in 1914 as an auxiliary corps, to complement the Irish Volunteer Force (IVF). Its recruits were from diverse backgrounds, mainly white-collar workers and professional women, but with a significant proportion also from the working class. Although it was otherwise an independent organization, its executive was subordinate to that of the Volunteers. This prompted allegations regarding its ‘crawling servility’, which were bitterly rejected by its more active members. In September 1914, the Volunteer movement split over Redmond’s appeal for its members to enlist in the British Army. Most of Cumann na mBan supported the rump of 2-3,000 who rejected this call, and who retained the original name, the IVF.
On 23 April 1916, when the IRB Military Council finalised arrangements for the Easter Rising, it integrated Cumann na mBan, along with the Volunteers and Citizen Army, into the ‘Army of the Irish Republic’; Pearse was appointed overall Commandant-General and Connolly as Commandant-General of the Dublin Division. However, in anticipation of fierce hand-to-hand fighting, some of the rebel leaders - De Valera at Boland’s Bakery and Eamon Ceannt at South Dublin Union - did not permit Cumann na mBan to occupy posts alongside their garrisons. But elsewhere the organisation played a vital, though generally non-combatant, role in the insurrection. They worked at First Aid posts tending wounded, prepared and delivered meals, gathered intelligence on scouting expeditions, carried despatches and transferred arms from dumps across the city to insurgent strongholds. At the Four Courts they helped to organise the evacuation of buildings at the time of surrender and to destroy incriminating papers. This was exceptional; more typical was the GPO, where Pearse insisted that most of them leave at noon on Friday 28th April. The building was then coming under sustained shell and machine-gun fire, and heavy casualties were anticipated. The following day the leaders at the GPO decided to negotiate surrender. Pearse asked Cumann member Elizabeth O’Farrell (a mid-wife at the National Maternity Hospital) to act as a go-between. Under British military supervision she brought Pearse’s surrender order to the rebel units still fighting in Dublin. Over 70 women, including many of the leading figures in Cumann na mBan, were arrested after the insurrection; all but 12 had been released by 8 May 1916.
Revitalized after the Rising and led by Countess Markievicz, Cumann na mBan took a leading role in encouraging the cult of the dead rebel leaders, organizing prisoner relief agencies and later in opposing conscription, and canvassing for Sinn Féin in the 1918 general election. During the Anglo-Irish war, its members were again active. They hid arms and provided safe houses for volunteers, helped run Dail courts and local authorities, and produced the militant nationalist newspaper, the ‘Irish Bulletin’. Most opposed the Treaty and followed closely the hostile line taken by Erskine Childers; hence at the time their organization was sometimes referred to as the ‘Women and Childers party’.